27 May 2018

Doctoral Mental Health Problems

'Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students' by Katia Levecque, Frederik Anseelab, Alain De Beuckelaer, Johan Van der Heyden and Lydia Gisle in (2017) 46(4) Research Policy comments
Research policy observers are increasingly concerned about the potential impact of current academic working conditions on mental health, particularly in PhD students. The aim of the current study is threefold. First, we assess the prevalence of mental health problems in a representative sample of PhD students in Flanders, Belgium (N = 3659). Second, we compare PhD students to three other samples: (1) highly educated in the general population (N = 769); (2) highly educated employees (N = 592); and (3) higher education students (N = 333). Third, we assess those organizational factors relating to the role of PhD students that predict mental health status. Results based on 12 mental health symptoms (GHQ-12) showed that 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression. This estimate was significantly higher than those obtained in the comparison groups. Organizational policies were significantly associated with the prevalence of mental health problems. Especially work-family interface, job demands and job control, the supervisor’s leadership style, team decision-making culture, and perception of a career outside academia are linked to mental health problems.
Salient findings are
  • One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students.
  • Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.
In answering 'Why is the mental health of PhD students important for research policy?' the authors comment
While a genuine concern for individual well-being is probably the most important reason why policymakers should pay attention to mental health problems, we argue that mental health of PhD students should be of concern for three additional main reasons. First, the work of PhD students themselves constitutes a major source of scientific advancement, as a doctoral dissertation requires an original contribution to the scientific knowledge base. Furthermore, the publication of dissertation results is a prerequisite for an academic career (Roach and Sauermann, 2010), making dissertation work a major contributor to academic output (Hagen, 2010; Miller, 2013). Given the compelling evidence for the effects of mental health problems on individuals’research output (Danna and Griffin, 1999), it is to be expected that a sizable cohort of PhD students suffering from mental health problems may affect the overall quality and quantity of individuals’ research output. Second, as most PhD students are part of larger research teams, whose composition determines scientific impact (Leeetal., 2015), PhD students with mental health issues may pose a considerable cost to research institutions and teams. To date, research policy efforts seemed to have focused more on‘hard outcomes’ such as publications, impact factors and patents,while ignoring the health effects of‘soft’policy outcomes, such as stress. However, soft outcomes may create serious financial costs for research institutions,and they will impact the functioning of the larger research teams that the individual researchers are part of, thus also determining ‘hard’ outcomes (see eg. Goh et al., 2015a,b). Third, mental health problems of PhD students impact both the supply and entrance to the research industry.Organizational policies that are linked to mental health problems will lead individuals to quit their PhD studies or leave the research industry altogether (Podsakoff et al., 2007). Several studies of PhD students suggest that the dropout numbers range from 30 to 50 percent, depending on the scientific discipline and country (Stubb et al., 2012). Such high turnover will make it difficult for the industry to attract new talent (Lievens and Highhouse, 2003), thus threatening the viability and quality of the academic research industry. Because economic competition between countries is heavily dependent on the nation’s scientific advancement and cognitive ability (Rindermann and Thompson, 2011), the prospects of having trained academic researchers not further pursuing a research career because of mental health problems should be a major concern for research policy. In sum, given the potential importance of mental health problems for research policy,there is an urgent need for systematic empirical data rather than anecdotal information on their prevalence and the organizational policies that are linked to them. Given the current lack of an empirical basis for mental health concerns and solutions, the current study has three aims. First, we aim to inform research policy by assessing mental health prevalence in a large-scale representative sample of PhD students in Flanders, Belgium. Second, to assess the scope of the problem, we compared the mental health of PhD students with that of three other samples, a group of highly educated adults in the general population, a group of highly educated employees and a group of higher education students. Third, with the aim of better understanding how research and organizational policies may relate to mental health, we examined PhD students’ perceptions of the academic environment and linked them to mental health problems.